Inside the world of adaptive rock climbing

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2002: One hundred feet up a rock face and out of hearing distance from his climbing partner, Craig Demartino leans back on the rope and prepares to be lowered down. Instead of feeling the line coming tight as expected, he begins falling — fast.

Moments later he’s on the ground, having sustained severe injuries consistent with a 10-story fall. Both of his legs are broken, his right smashed open. Plus, he has multiple injuries on his back. But he’s alive and not paralyzed.

The accident occurred because of miscommunication, which resulted in his belayer letting go of the rope.

Over the next year, with his wife and two children by Demartino’s side, doctors attempted to save his right leg, but were unsuccessful. Finally, the decision came to amputate below the knee.

Tailspin, 12b, in the Poudre Canyon, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy of Cameron Maier/BearCam Media

As Demartino recovered and reflected on life before he got hurt, he realized that climbing, to him, was a selfish pursuit, and that he didn’t want to be that self-focused anymore. So he made a change.

“I knew what climbing did for me, and I repurposed the focus away from myself and into what I can do to help people get over a hump,” Demartino tells GrindTV from the Denver airport en route to a speaking engagement in Chicago.

“When you get as hurt as I did and your body doesn’t work as it’s supposed to, you go down a dark place. You can’t avoid it and you have to navigate through that stuff or it will kill you fast.”

Muscle Beach, 5.11a, Shelf Road, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy of Cyndy Tillman Demartino

Four months after his amputation, Demartino was climbing again, and three years later he ascended 3,000-foot El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.

Climbing — which Demartino had done for decades before his injury — provided the avenue to working through dark times and coming to terms with life with a damaged body. Adapting to the injury also gave him a new perspective. He learned that human struggle is universal and that everyone has something that they battle with. For some, it’s physical; for others, it’s emotional, hidden from view.

“After I got hurt and came back and had some successes in the climbing world,” he says, “I parlayed that into a greater purpose. I realized that a lot of people get hurt and don’t bounce back.”

Today, Demartino takes amputees and vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) out climbing for the first time through Adaptive Adventures in Denver. His one-on-one work helps those who’ve been through a traumatic injury feel calm and focused. He’s also a professional speaker and athlete sponsored by Evolv and Arc’teryx.

“I’ve been a climber my whole life,” Demartino explains. “I got hurt climbing and that’s what gives me credibility in that world.”

Demartino’s credited with being the first amputee to climb El Capitan in a day, and he’s gone on to climb it three more times. He’s also twice earned gold at the National Paraclimbing Championships and won bronze at the Paraclimbing World Championships.

What the world sees in Demartino is this confident, strong man, but only those closest to him witness his behind-the-scenes struggles, like when “I’m crawling to the bathroom because my leg hurts too much [to put on my prosthetic],” he shares.

Pain is a constant in Demartino’s life, a continuous buzzing that he’s learned to get used to. And this pain helps him be in tune with others who also hurt.

As a speaker, his job is to tell his story at leadership events, sharing what happened to him and the steps he took to be successful. “I use my story as a catalyst to help people succeed amongst the chaos in their lives,” he says.

Today, when Demartino isn’t at a speaking engagement or performing adaptive work in Denver, he’s at home with his family — or he’s out on the rocks overlooking Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, the sun gleaming off the water and reflecting onto his skin, moving peacefully over the stone as he always has done.

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